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Is bracing for impact really helpful in an airline crash?

Or is it just meant to make us feel like we're doing something?

Spending weeks (if not months) reading about Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s heroic landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River last January led the Air & Space copy chief to wonder: “When an airplane is about to make a bad landing and the pilot tells passengers ‘Brace for impact,’ does that instruction really help? Could it actually hurt? Is it just a placebo to make the passengers feel like they’re doing something?”

The question has circulated on the Internet for several years in the form of an urban legend; the ever-helpful web site Snopes.com lists this version, which made the rounds in 1997: “A coworker mentioned [that the reason passengers are told to] stick their head between their knees, was so that in the event of a serious crash…the rapid deceleration would snap everyone’s neck and avoid pain and suffering.”

Later versions of the rumor suggested that the posture would make collecting dental records a cinch, and also would make passenger’s remains “easier to piece together.” An even more cynical version was featured on the Discovery Channel show “Mythbusters” in 2005, when hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman debunked the following hypothesis: “The brace position was actually designed by the airline industry to kill people rather than save them during an airplane crash in order to save money by paying off wrongful death suits rather than continuous injury compensations.”

Some people will believe anything.

The FAA’s Air Carrier Operations Bulletin No. 1-94-17, published in 1994, notes (somewhat unrealistically, given the suddenness of most emergencies): “In order to establish a best brace-for-impact position for each person, it would be necessary to know the size and physical limitations of the individual, the seating configuration, the type of emergency, and many other factors.”

More useful are the bulletin’s reasons why passengers should brace for impact: Doing so reduces flailing and minimizes the effects of secondary impact. In aircraft with seats spaced relatively far apart, a passenger should rest her head and chest against her legs while grasping her ankles. Her head should be face down in her lap, not turned to one side. (In aircraft with very close seating, a passenger should position his head and arms against the seat in front of him.)

This opinion was endorsed in a 1998 study published in Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine analyzing the crash of a Boeing 737 at Kegworth, near Nottingham, England in 1989. One-third of the passengers died in the crash; the injuries of the survivors included a significant number of pelvic and lower limb injuries. The study suggested that the traditional brace-for-impact position (which did not include a passenger using the seat in front of her as a brace) could be modified to help reduce these types of injuries.

The FAA bulletin concludes with this bit of advice: “In the case of a planned emergency landing, the passengers should be briefed on the above information. In the case of an unplanned emergency, the flight attendants may only have enough time to give a short command such as ‘lean over’ or ‘grab your ankles.’ Experience has shown that in an attempt to take a brace position of some sort, the passengers will end up in a position which could result in less injury than if no attempt had been made at all.” (Scroll to the end of this FAA publication to see diagrams of the brace position.)

All of this may soon be beside the point: According to a recent New York Times story, “Starting this fall, all new airplanes will be required to have seats that will stay in place when subjected to stresses up to 16 times the force of gravity. And, in a safety measure borrowed from automobiles, some seats will be equipped with air bags.” The air bags shown here, built into passenger seatbelts by a company called AmSafe, deploy using a shock meter system (as do car air bags), and won’t inflate during the routine side-to-side or up-and-down movements typically produced during turbulence. (See videos of the air bags being tested here.)

They’re already found on more than 30 carriers, says AmSafe’s Carlotta Soares, including U.S. Airways, Virgin Atlantic, JAL, and Cathay Pacific.

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Got a nagging question about aviation or space? Use our online submission form, and we'll do our best to answer it. Or maybe we already have.

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